Sharon Otieno was a year away from completing her degree at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology when she applied to join the Safaricom Technology Academy internship program.
That was 2015 and so impressive was her work at the Cybersecurity Department at the telecommunications company that when she finished her studies the following year, she was offered employment and went back as a senior officer.
Today, Sharon is a Principal Engineer at that same department in Safaricom where six years ago she started as an intern.
Rising through the ranks however, was not a walk in the park.
“I must say it was very overwhelming at first. At some point, I even thought of changing departments and went to my head of department to make that request. But that changed by the time I was ending my internship because the leadership team was really supportive. They saw in me what I didn’t see in myself at the time, and that is what has shaped career in cybersecurity,” says Sharon.
Sharon’s role as a cybersecurity engineer at Safaricom is to build security solutions, manage their vulnerabilities and secure any other solutions that have been deployed to protect the company’s resources from any threats.
It entails safeguarding the company’s sensitive data from cybercriminals, who are always looking to create ways to infiltrate sensitive databases.
Simply put, she designs, implements and manages solutions that protect the devices used by staff, these being laptops, desktops, servers and mobile devices, from potential hackers and cyber-attacks.
“The solutions that I interact with range from identity management systems, vulnerability management systems, to basic ones like the antivirus solutions,” she explains.
In the event that the department notices suspicious behavior in a staff’s device, Sharon’s job is to ensure that the device is isolated from the network and forensic investigation launched to gather evidence and recover quickly.
In her career, there have been numerous opportunities for personal and professional growth, all which she has grabbed to advance her work, especially being in a career that is predominantly male.
According to Cybercrime Ventures, a researcher in the cyber economy, there is a substantial rise in the number of women in the field of cybersecurity. The research, which was conducted in 2018, predicted that by 2019, women would represent more than 20 per cent of the global cybersecurity workforce.
However, this number is still very low and more women are needed in the industry to close the cybersecurity gender gap.
In her own way, Sharon is helping close the gap by taking on a mentorship role at the Women in Technology (WIT) programme, where she is a Technology Academy lead.
“In a society where women are taught to be perfectionists and caregivers, succeeding in a field that is predominantly male dominated can sometimes seem like a distant fantasy. It is unfortunate that we have stereotypes because they can be obstacles for attraction, and retention of women and girls to STEM courses and careers,” she says.
“One of the common ones (stereotypes) that I see out there is that of the outspoken woman; where she is seen as somebody who shows off and might not necessarily be good at what she does. In the event that you get promoted or you rise up the ladder, it is perceived that it’s because you’re a woman and you didn’t actually qualify for the job. One of my guiding principles to break that stereotype, in case I encounter such kind of bias, is to always be the best at what I do. I give it my best, more than 100 per cent,” says Sharon.
Sharon believes women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) need mentorship for a number of reasons.
“One, to help them navigate an industry that is predominantly male-dominated. And two, the leadership is important in helping them break artificial ceilings that have traditionally been barriers of entry and success for women in STEM, which can be achieved through mentorship and professional development,” she says.
Sharon mentors a woman at the Technology Academy. They meet up once a month, but when she needs guidance, runs into a problem or just needs to talk, they catch up over text or a phone call.
The initial phase of the mentoring journey involved getting to know each other.
“I get to share my experiences and people who have influenced my journey along the way, and the mentee shared her experiences and challenges or gaps and why she needed the mentorship. We then talk about the learning and development goals and personal expectations of the mentorship and what might she required from me as a mentor,” she says.
Depending on the topics of discussion, Sharon and her mentee carve out time for the engagement sessions and discuss how to define and evaluate progress.
Her mentee finished her studies four months ago and is now looking for a job. From the mentorship, she needed guidance on her career path in cybersecurity and is now confident she wants pursue a career in Cybersecurity Defence.
“Having a mentor is something I would encourage everyone to do. Mentorship helps mold a person both at a personal and professional level. You get to grow by learning from other’s experiences, build on your strengths and improve on your weaknesses,” says Sharon.